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Activist: U.S. Response to Puerto Rico “Lifts the Veil of Colonialism” & 119 Years of Exploitation

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The U.S. military has sent more than 4,000 soldiers to Puerto Rico as the island continues to grapple with a dire shortage of clean water, food and electricity nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria. For more on the militarization of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the devastating storm, we speak with Xiomara Caro Diaz, lawyer, activist and director of New Organizing Projects at the Center for Popular Democracy.

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re bringing in right now Xiomara Caro Diaz, joining us from San Juan, Puerto Rico. She’s a lawyer, an activist and director of New Organizing Projects at the Center for Popular Democracy. Also still with us is Luis Miranda of the MirRam Group and father of Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Xiomara, welcome to Democracy Now! Describe what’s happening now. We just heard this report of people helping each other, this community relief response. What about what’s happening on the ground, what you need? And your response to President Trump coming tomorrow?

XIOMARA CARO DIAZ: So, thank you, Amy. Right now what’s happening is that the veil of colonialism has been lifted for the world to see what it looks like when a place that has been left out of the political infrastructure and has been exploited for 119 years by the United States goes through something like this.

So people are organizing, because that’s what they’ve been doing to survive for a very long time. We have established—there are several groups, many probably we don’t even know of, that are assuming the responsibility not of immediate relief, but really starting to do what people, poor people and people who have been marginalized for very long time, have known what to do to survive in Puerto Rico. We need to remember that before this hurricane passed, Puerto Rico was already going through a crisis that is not economic, about money only, it’s political. So, right now, there are groups that are setting up popular food kitchens, that are creating citizen brigades to take care of the streets. And that is what we need.

We need to visibilize the fact that the people of Puerto Rico have the infrastructure to build a horizontal movement to support not rebuilding what we used to have, but really building a new country, not the one we used—not the one that we would love people to think that we were OK. It is now visible for the whole world, and also, in Puerto Rico, the metaphor of how visible all the poor communities are, because there’s no trees anymore. There are thousands of people without homes, and there are hundreds of people dead, and to—still to be counted.

So, the response is, we don’t need help. We need the United States to assume responsibility for a political relationship that has been abusive, that has been about exploitation. So we need the resources to repair what has been done and for the space for the groups on the ground to do what they’ve been doing for a very long time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Amy, if I can add on this issue, these are eloquent examples of the kind of organization at the grassroots level that has been going on, but I think the decision of President Trump to specifically target the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, in some of the most amazing attacks by a national leader on a local leader that I’ve seen in my lifetime, the reality is that Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, if anybody was out there on the front lines the first out of the storm, she spent it in a shelter with the other residents of her city, and she’s been photographed repeatedly in water up to her chest, trying to assist people in different places. She’s an on-the-ground leader who is directly involved in trying to assist her constituents in surviving and getting through the ravages of this storm. And for her to become the target of the president, while he was off doing whatever he was but not paying attention to Puerto Rico, is just astounding that this kind of a direct political attack—and then the president would claim that she was the one that was following the dictates of the Democratic Party to criticize him. It really is mind-boggling that this kind of stuff is occurring.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could respond to how people are responding in San Juan to President’s comments, both the attack on the mayor as well as, overall, on Puerto Ricans? I think we lost Xiomara Caro Diaz.

XIOMARA CARO DIAZ: Hello?

AMY GOODMAN: Hi. I’m wondering if you can respond to what President Trump said, his attack on the mayor of San Juan and talking about Puerto Ricans as want everything done for them.

XIOMARA CARO DIAZ: I think President Trump is not surprising anyone. We’ve seen this type of behavior before and attacks on other communities in the United States, so it doesn’t surprise, but it should be condemned. And we will not tolerate that type of language. We will not tolerate that type of violence. We are not—people here have been, for a very long time, waiting for the president of the United States to assume responsibility. There’s a big difference. We do not need his pity. We don’t need his drama. And we do not need his attacks. We need the United States and the current president, which he is in the position right now, to assume responsibility for that and, specifically, fix things.

We need, one, relief that does not come with strings attached. We don’t need any more loans with high interest. We need repair and investment for 119 years of exploitation and then the amount of money that has been made off Puerto Rico. We need the repeal of the Jones Act and all other laws that limit the capacity of Puerto Rico to be a sustainable place to live. We need demilitarization of humanitarian help, and allow the people of Puerto Rico, not just here, but in the United States, to be able to share their solidarity and their help in a horizontal, direct way, without trying to control at a moment where lives are at stake. We need a commitment to just rebuilding, no displacement, no evictions. We’re already hearing from communities where FEMA is telling them that they cannot rebuild their home where it currently is. And that is starting to lift up grave, grave questions about what is the agenda behind telling people who have lived in a place for a very long time, in a moment like this, that they cannot rebuild their home there. We need debt relief. And we need to end colonialism, which is at the heart, it is at the core, of this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: The Army general credited with fixing the response to Hurricane Katrina, Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, said Trump should have mobilized 50,000 U.S. troops for Puerto Rico. What about militarization, Xiomara, both needing help and your concern about the U.S. military moving in even more?

XIOMARA CARO DIAZ: Militaries in Puerto Rico right now are not the people distributing help. They might be, tomorrow, after a visit. And if that happens, if there is suddenly a bunch of help, we will have confirmed that this is a public relations trip and not a real trip to assume responsibility for a place that’s part of the United States, not because of our choice, but because we’ve been submitted to that.

So the people for real who are doing the work are groups like Comedores Sociales in Caguas, who are feeding 500 people in the public plaza every day since last Friday; people, organizations like Calle Salud Salud in Loíza, who distributed 300 lunches yesterday. We are not waiting for his help, and the military is not helping.

The military, right now, what it’s doing is occupying Puerto Rico. It’s making it even more difficult to get help on the ground. We have even heard a story from a comrade in Utuado who came to San Juan and told us that citizen brigades were helping to clean a street and to rebuild, to create a new way to cross a river, and police and local military told him to stop, that that was not their role. So, right now, the military in Puerto Rico is holding a role of violence and not of facilitation.

We do not need to be reinvaded. We need to recognize that at the core of this is precisely the militarization of Puerto Rico and the poverty that has come with it. And the reason why people are dying is because they didn’t have homes with dignity to live in. And that has a core reason, and it has to do with the militarization of Puerto Rico. So, here we’ve seen ICE, we’ve seen FBI, we’ve seen DEA, and we’ve heard stories of them hanging out in Condado area, where there’s no martial law. This is not what Puerto Rico needed right now. And President Trump should be ready to answer those questions, because we’re ready to confront him with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Xiomara, finally, you said hundreds of people have died. Certainly, that’s not the number that we’re hearing. Why do you believe that?

XIOMARA CARO DIAZ: Because the amount of—the stories that come through the places we are trying to connect people is people getting—hitchhiking from three hours away and telling us about neighbors who have had to bury their family members in their backyard; because we know of hospitals where we’ve taken press that have 15, 20 bodies waiting what to do, where usually they only have space for eight. So, I am taking responsibility for saying the damage, the loss of life, is a lot bigger than is being reported. I believe people know this, and this is information that is not being shared. And the people on the ground know this because we have stories of comrades who have lost people after Hurricane Maria because of lack of oxygen, because of the heat, because of lack of water. We have—I have people directly who have lost grandmothers and uncles. We are talking—I believe we are talking about hundreds. And I believe, in a couple of weeks, time will give us the reason.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Xiomara Caro Diaz. I hope we can check in with you later this week, director of New Organizing Projects at the Center for Popular Democracy, lawyer and activist in San Juan. And I want to thank Luis Miranda Jr., founding partner of the MirRam Group political consulting firm, also founding president of the Hispanic Federation, one of the nation’s leading Latino nonprofit organizations, also happens to be the father of award-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda. Luis Miranda’s new piece, we’ll link to, in the Daily News, “Puerto Ricans aren’t 'lazy' and will remember Trump’s bad hurricane response.”

When we come back, we’ll talk about Catalonia, more than 800 people injured as Catalonians attempted to go to the polls to vote in a referendum for their independence. Stay with us.

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